“I wish they would have made Link climb just a LITTLE faster.” is a line my friend and podcast co-host Matthew Hayes said during our day of chat praising this landmark of a game. After roughly 8-10 hours, it’s the only nitpick I’ve uncovered (but there is a secret to help with that).
Nintendo has always been the best at making a game feel great. The joy of movement is what made Super Mario Bros and Mario 64 the gold standard for controlling a platformer in 2D and 3D respectively. Ocarina of Time cleverly solved the challenges of 3D Action/RPG with it’s genius Z-targeting and auto-jump. The forced motion controls of the Wii went against that philosophy and worked against my enjoyment of games on that platform.
Breath of the Wild makes exploring its massive world a pleasure due to that same joy of movement. Link nimbly sprints and deftly climbs any surface his stamina (and your planning) can muster. He can then fall from any height and save himself with the ludicrously fun and useful paraglider.
Exploration is another key element. The original Zelda and Link to the Past were much more open than the 3D iterations that followed. The original in particular relied on hints from NPCs and placement of difficult enemies to funnel players in the right direction, but you were free to head right into the toughest enemies and die trying. Ocarina of Time had an open hub you could explore but there was a fairly rigid path you had to follow if you wanted to progress.
One of the first main goals in Breath of the Wild is usually the last one in every other Zelda: Defeat Ganon. That is the destination, but this game is all about the journey. What you discover on your journey feels personal because BotW asks you to rely heavily on your eyes and ears. You might learn a vague hint of where to go but must discover that place on your own. Along the way your senses are engaged, taking in the scenery and scanning for Shrines, useful items, animals to harvest, people to trade with, enemies to fight, and whatever that is over there!
A great example of this is a quest that gives you several visual clues and asks you to find locations. You can do this in any order and there are no waypoints to help. This creates an engagement with the world that is so often lacking in modern gaming.
A huge problem I have with the franchise from Ocarina to Skyward is the pacing of the opening few hours. You are usually started in a safe environment and bombarded with lore and control tutorials. After a few minutes of this borefest I’m itching to get out into the world and actually play the game!
Breath of the Wild’s first few hours are paced brilliantly, and obviously took inspiration from the first Zelda. You start out with the bare minimum of mysterious story to pique interest and are then thrown out into a world that can kill you. After hours of trial by fire, by the time you reach your first friendly settlement you are absolutely ready for the cozy warmth of shelter. To sit by the fire and make potent meals and elixirs, swap wares with the merchants, talk to the locals for clues, and not worry about being attacked. The safety felt earned and was therefore much more enjoyable.
The drastic reduction in dungeons and addition of 100+ Shrines is the perfect complement to a large, open world. Previous 3D Zelda dungeons had critical items that had to be used to progress the story. The Shrines are mostly hidden and – in a way – unnecessary. The post-Plateau upgrades are useful, but not critical, allowing you to complete them in any order you wish. The Shrines are obviously much shorter than the epic dungeons of the past, but fit the pacing much better and reduce the chance of frustration. If you can’t crack it, it’s either a few more minutes of thought, or you can simply leave and come back later. There are plenty more where that came from.
I read a review that mentioned a particular Shrine puzzle (that I won’t spoil here like they did for me). The reviewer mentioned struggling with this puzzle until thinking out of the box and flipping their thinking upside down. I tried this method and didn’t find success but through my own experimentation I found a third solution that was obviously not a part of the initial design. I spoke to Matthew Hayes about it and he had found a fourth technique. Feeling a personal connection to solving a problem is incredibly gratifying.
After bouncing off Skyward Sword, Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, and Majora’s Mask, I was worried I had outgrown the franchise and would never find the same passion and child-like wonder I had for Ocarina of Time. Breath of the Wild has reinvigorated that passion and truly feels like the next step for the franchise. Nintendo went back to the drawing board of what made Zelda great, and created something new from that foundation that feels like the best game I’ve played this generation.